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On A Good Day, Taste Of India Is A Great Pleasure

FRIDAY, JULY 25, 1997

I had a dream the other night that I was trying to outrun a wave of molten lava. The swell of bubbling red stuff was gaining on me when I woke up in a sweat.

This nightmare could have had something to do with a recent trip to Hawaii, where I tried in vain to see the volcano spewing liquid rock. Or, more likely, it was caused by the fiery dish of lamb vindaloo I had eaten for dinner at Taste of India.

But then heartburn is something you come to expect after eating this exotically spiced cuisine. And I really did enjoy the tender chunks of lamb and potatoes bathed in that hot lava-like sauce.

I like a lot of things about Taste of India. It’s got a terrific lunch buffet, with ever-changing entrees. You can easily get stuffed for just $5.99. And it is the only place in this region to eat the cuisine of that part of the world.

Still, I wish the kitchen showed more care with some of the dishes. Over the course of many visits, I’ve found the food has been inconsistent. Wonderfully seasoned and fresh on one occasion. The next time, dishes were obviously reheated or came swimming in a pool of oil.

I was thrilled when The Taste of India opened last fall. After The Tandoor, Spokane’s first Indian restaurant, closed several years ago, I was among the mourners. Yeah, the place had wretched service, but it had decent curry.

The Dhandwar family from California (they’re originally from the Punjab region of India) arrived to fill the void.

At first, the Taste could do no wrong. All the dishes hit the mark. The dining room, with its brilliant white walls and comfortable chairs, was an improvement over previous restaurants in that venue. Service was efficient and unobtrusive.

The lengthy menu covers regional specialties from all across India: sinus-clearing vindaloo from Goa in the south, Madras curry tempered with coconut milk or creamy sauces with nuts from Korma. Cooking meats and breads in a clay Tandoori oven is a Middle Eastern technique inherited long ago from invading enemies, the Mongol conquerors.

The colorful palette of spices used to flavor dishes includes fenugreek, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, ground coriander, fennel seeds and all sorts of chilis. Cilantro haters, take note: fresh coriander, which is another name for cilantro, is used in many recipes. If you have an aversion to this herb, it’s worth informing your server.

The lunch buffet is a good way to get acquainted with the restaurant’s different dishes. Just this week, the impressive spread included baigan bhartha, a savory eggplant dish; the moist, mild tandoori chicken; a hearty lentil dish called daal; spicy slices of fried potatoes and a mild curry with tender pieces of beef and bell pepper.

Don’t miss the excellent mint chutney and the yogurt and cucumber raita. Both have a cooling effect. The fragrant basmati rice is flecked with colorful bits of carrot and gets its slight licorice bite from fennel seed. I’m glad they no longer put whole cloves in the mixture.

The lone disappointment on the buffet line was the naan, the flatbread you use to scoop up the saucy dishes. Naan is one of the great pleasures of Indian cuisine, a cross between a tortilla and a fluffy pita bread. But the Taste of India’s version has a rubbery texture, as if it doesn’t rise enough in the oven.

At dinner, the tandoori selections have also been a letdown. I ordered the special dinner that included several items from the tandoor. The pieces of chicken painted with the crimson barbecue sauce were dry and barely warm. It had obviously been sitting around for some time. Same thing for the shish kebab and the chicken tikka. They were definitely past their prime.

This combo platter goes for $19.99, and when half of it is barely edible that’s a problem.

At the same time, I also ordered the vindaloo and a vegetable dish off the regular menu that were quite good. I liked the red pepper kick in the bhindi, a dish made with fresh okra sauteed with garlic, ginger, tomatoes and onions.

There are more than a dozen vegetarian selections, and among the best are the chana masala, garbanzo beans in a dark, deeply flavored sauce and the pairing of cauliflower and potato in a dish called aloo gobi masala. One of the most popular meatless meals features cubes of firm homemade cheese in a creamy sauce. The rich, spicy sauce is a good contrast for the mild chunks of cheese.

Other nice touches I appreciated during dinner were the crispy pappadams placed on the table to whet the appetite. These traditional lentil crackers are great to munch on while sipping one of the Indian lagers bearing such names as Taj Mahal and Guru.

The desserts at The Taste of India are also a treat, especially if you like your sweets rich and creamy. The mango ice cream had a hint of cinnamon and pieces of fruit. The rich pudding is thinner than the custardy American version, but it’s just as satisfying. I’m not crazy about the gulab jamun, fried dough drizzled with a light homemade syrup. But then, I’m not a big fan of doughnuts either and that’s what this reminded me of.

Despite the restaurant’s shortcomings, I’m really rooting for this place to make it. Where else can you sup on vividly spiced curries while listening to sitar music and sipping Indian beer?

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Taste of India Location: 3110 N. Division, 327-7313 Days, hours: 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily. Meals: Indian cuisine Prices: lunch buffet, $5.99; dinner entrees $5.95 $14.95 Smoking: non-smoking Reservations: yes Credit cards: V, MC Personal checks: yes

This sidebar appeared with the story: Taste of India Location: 3110 N. Division, 327-7313 Days, hours: 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily. Meals: Indian cuisine Prices: lunch buffet, $5.99; dinner entrees $5.95 $14.95 Smoking: non-smoking Reservations: yes Credit cards: V, MC Personal checks: yes

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